Paydays Modest in Fabulous ‘50s
by Tom Jensen September 09, 2020
Ranking the five NASCAR Hall of Fame drivers who earned the most money in the 1950s.
While many drivers who raced during NASCAR’s infancy viewed the sport has a hobby, it quickly became a profession, a way for racers to enjoy the thrill of competition and pocket some money at the same time.
During the 1950s, NASCAR’s first full decade of competition, some of the sport’s stars profited from their exploits behind the wheel, earning comfortable livings. But it would be several more decades before big money reached the sport, so no one was getting rich – yet.
What drivers earned in the 1950s might seem modest today, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, $100 in 1955 would be worth about $960 in 2020.
Here are the five NASCAR Hall of Fame inductees who earned the most purse money during the decade of the 1950s. (All stats courtesy of racing-reference.info)
5. Fireball Roberts, $88,502
During the 1950s, Fireball Roberts, a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2015, made 127 premier series starts, winning 21 races and posting 53 top-five finishes. Curiously, the Daytona Beach native’s single best year during the decade was 1958, when he earned $32,218, despite competing in just 10 races, six of which he won. The previous season, Roberts won eight times in 42 starts, but took home just $19,828. Roberts is the only driver on this list who didn’t win at least two premier series championships in the 1950s.
4. Tim Flock, $106,400
All 39 of Tim Flock’s premier series race victories and 100 of his 102 top-five finishes took place in the 1950s. Not surprisingly then, 96 percent of Flock’s career earnings also date to the 1950s. Inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2014, Flock won his first championship driving a Hudson Hornet in 1952; three years later, he won a career-high 18 races and a second title, this time driving a Chrysler 300 for Carl Kiekhaefer. The title seasons were Flock’s two biggest paydays, earning him $22,890 in 1952 and $37,780 in ’55.
3. Herb Thomas, $139,193
NASCAR’s first two-time champion and a 2013 inductee into the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Herb Thomas piloted his iconic Fabulous Hudson Hornet to titles in 1951 and ’53. All but $450 of Thomas’ career earnings and all 48 of his race wins came from 1950 to late in the ’56 season, when he was seriously injured in a crash at Shelby, North Carolina, effectively ending his career. In terms of money earned, his two best seasons were 1953, when he won $28,910, and ’54, when his purse money was $29,274. In each of those two seasons, Thomas set his career-high by winning 12 races.
2. Buck Baker, $166,176
Another member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2013, Buck Baker had one of the longest careers of any driver, entering his first premier series race in 1949 and his 635th and final race in 1976. For the decade of the 1950s, Baker scored 40 of his 46 career race victories, as well as 170 top fives. Baker won the 1956 series championship driving a Carl Kiekhaefer-owned Chrysler and a year later he became the first to win consecutive titles, although the ’57 crown came in a Chevrolet that Baker owned. The ’56 season was Baker’s richest of the ‘50s, as he made $34,076.
1. Lee Petty, $199,850
Inducted in the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2011, Lee Petty, the patriarch of the Petty racing family was NASCAR’s first three-time premier series champion, taking titles in 1954, ’58 and ’59. Petty also won the inaugural Daytona 500 in 1959, the same year he earned a career-high $49,219. Forty-seven of Petty’s 54 career race victories came during the 1950s, as well as 203 of his 231 top-five finishes. Petty also holds the NASCAR record for most wins on dirt tracks, with 42.